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October 23, 2020 6 min read

Kids and sports, again? Maybe you have the feeling that you saw something similar here on Emerald Berlin not so long ago. And you are absolutely right! Just in May there was a report here about children in Honduras who get access to education, health and equality through sports. An important approach – and we liked it so much that we are now introducing a second program that teaches knowledge and skills through sport and fun: the Young Bafana Academy.

Both projects have in common that disadvantaged children and young people get the tools for a self-determined life through sport. Sport, with its rules, the principles of fairness and team spirit, gives children important foundations for life. They learn that it is worth making an effort, even if something may not work out at first, that they can achieve something if they keep going, and that they can work on something by their own efforts. This is what sustainable development cooperation is all about: that something remains, even if financial support runs out at some point or a project is terminated. This kind of cooperation is never about giving people money because they are so poor – but about empowering them to help themselves in the long term, to create participation and to lay the foundations for sustainable social security, which in the best case even has an effect beyond the immediate project work.

Soccer, the sport of black South Africans 

But back to sport, or more precisely: to soccer, and to South Africa, the country we’re focusing on this time. Many people here are enthusiastic about sport, not only soccer but also rugby and cricket. However, the enthusiasm and interest in different sports is divided. Soccer, for example, has a long tradition in South Africa, although it is traditionally the sport of the black people, while the whites tend to play rugby or cricket.

This is mainly due to the long history of racial segregation in South Africa. It began with colonial rule by European settlers as early as the 17th century. The term "apartheid" is used to describe the systematic racial segregation in the second half of the 20th century. Although the clear majority of South Africa's population were black, the economy, finance and political power were in the hands of the privileged white minority. The authoritarian regime did not fall until the early 1990s. Nelson Mandela was the most famous black fighter against apartheid. The lawyer was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison. In 1994, he became the first black president of South Africa.

The division of sports has changed a bit since the end of apartheid. For many children from the townships, the poorer and black-inhabited districts, membership in a soccer club is still unaffordable ¬– and simply kicking a ball somewhere outside with friends is too dangerous in many places in South Africa with its high crime rates.

A turning point of some kind was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the first World Cup to be held on the African continent. Anyone interested in soccer will probably remember the vuvuzela, a deafening wind instrument and a symbol of South African soccer. The World Cup led to a soccer boom. For many children – black and white – soccer became the sport of choice.

Just like for Bernd Steinhage. Born in South Africa, the son of a German and a Namibian, Steinhage just returned home in the World Cup year after six years abroad. In 2004, at the age of 18, he had gone abroad, had lived in Germany, Spain and Nicaragua, had been active as a professional soccer player and social worker and had studied business administration in Berlin. Back in South Africa he decided to do something with soccer and children. His concern: Interested and talented children, regardless of their social background or skin colour, should have a place where they can train in a protected environment under professional guidance and benefit from everything that soccer is all about: team spirit, fairness, support. And he wanted to make sure that they also receive a solid school education.

Education for all children

This is something that especially black children in South Africa can take for granted. During the years of apartheid, the regime's racism was visible in the education system with its strong separation according to skin colour. White children received a higher quality education than black children. It was only in 1994 that state schools were opened to all children, and compulsory education and an equal educational system were introduced.

But many schools are poorly equipped – also in terms of staff. Every fifth South African between the age of 15 and 49 is infected with HIV, which is why there is often simply a lack of staff in the schools. But there’s a dire need for teachers, for example to teach the key competence of English. Knowledge of English is particularly important in South Africa because there are eleven official languages in the country. And special support, such as for young football talents, is usually provided at private schools – unaffordable for almost everyone from the townships.

In the region around Cape Town, around three million people live in such poor areas. Life here is often marked by poverty and unemployment. In addition to HIV, other diseases and inadequate health care are major problems. Nearly half of the adults are unemployed and do not receive state support. Drug abuse and crime are the consequences in this often hopeless situation.

Young Bafana: Soccer plus school education

Here, about 45 kilometres from Cape Town, Bernd Steinhage founded the Young Bafana Academy, a non-profit organisation that provides children and young people with a comprehensive range of soccer and educational opportunities. At the academy, disadvantaged black children from nearby townships play together with white children from richer neighbourhoods. The children from the townships receive scholarships, which are also financed by donations. One scholarship covers the complete equipment, the transport of the player from the township, food packages as well as the participation in training and games and other events that promote soft skills. The training sessions of the U12, U14 and U18 performance teams take place three to four times a week; in addition, each player commits to participating in the Academy's education programme. In its founding year, the Young Bafana Academy started with a handful of children. Today, ten years later, there are six teams with 160 players aged six to 18.

The Academy also offers paid training and game sessions twice a week for additional players aged between five and 14 who train after school. Most of them come from the better-off neighbourhoods. The school teams and the performance teams regularly take part in events together, where the soccer rules apply, too: respect, fair play, discipline – for everyone.

For the children and young people, soccer is the focus of attention. Most of them dream of being discovered and making a career as professional players. But the Academy combines sport with education – anyone who wants to play soccer here must also do their schoolwork, and the curriculum focuses on English and math. The Academy's declared aim is to break the vicious circle of poverty through sport and education. After all, when children are admitted to the school, they are taken off the streets, perhaps for the first time they see a perspective for themselves and experience a support for their talents – as sportsmen and women, but also as personalities with a perspective for life. Personal development and a school diploma are the main concerns of the Academy, with soccer only coming second. It’s a vehicle, transporting education and important skills virtually through the back door.

The Young Bafana hotbed of talent

Soccer naturally plays a major role in the everyday life of the players. Talent scouts pay regular visits to the Young Bafanas. Last but not least, the Academy is also considered a talent factory. Several professional soccer players have started their career here.

One of them is Asanda "Zuka" Dyani from Lwandle Township. Zuka came to a trial training of Young Bafana at the age of 12 – on foot and without shoes. He became part of the first Young Bafana performance team and later played for the U23 team of the legendary club Kaizer Chiefs from Johannisburg. He signed his first professional contract with Ubuntu Cape Town FC in 2018 and now plays for Free State Stars, where his contract runs until 2021. Success stories like that of Zuka, who has worked his way up to a professional career with great discipline, make the Young Bafana Academy proud. For the children from Lwandle, Zuka is both hero and role model, as someone who has made it. A detailed portrait of Zuka can be found here.

The integrative power of soccer

By the way: Bafana Bafana is the unofficial name of the South African national team. The word from the Xhosa language means "the boys" – with Young Bafana being “little boys”. But even though the project mainly supports boys, it is basically open to all children – regardless of gender, skin colour and social background. This is why the Academy with its deliberately mixed and multicultural teams also stands for active integration. And when children play soccer together, their families also come together on the sidelines for cultural exchange, even if they come from very different ethnic groups. Another thing that soccer is really great at. 


The author of this blog article is Katharina Frier-Obad. You want to give her feedback or have a question? Write her a comment here.



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